‘The Church saves us’, I wrote: I am told that actually it is Jesus Christ. How many Catholics think like Protestants?

St Peter's Square in the Vatican (AP)

I have been pondering on one response to a blog I wrote recently, the headline of which ended “Few understand this pontificate: but it’s the Church that saves us”. The response began “… Wrong! It is Jesus Christ who saves us”. I naturally assumed that this was written by a Protestant who had come online in order to be critical of Catholic beliefs: a Catholic knows that though, OF COURSE it is Jesus Christ who saves us, the Church he founded is HOW he does it, how he makes himself real and concrete in our daily lives, especially by the gift of the Holy Eucharist and the Church’s penitential system.

He went on to say that “The Church is only of any assistance in our salvation as long as she remains faithful to Jesus Christ”, as though the actual behaviour of those often unworthy ministers who administer the sacraments and who are responsible for guarding and propagating His revelation (and administering its organisational structures) somehow constituted what the Church actually IS. That’s certainly what Protestants and the secular world think.

It is a fundamental Catholic principle that the unworthiness of the minister cannot effect the validity of the sacraments he celebrates. The disunity and sometimes heretical pronouncements of many of the German bishops do not have any effect on the validity of the priesthood of those they ordain: and the sacraments those priests will administer is what will save those Catholics whose shepherds they will become.

So; a Protestant response, then: “The Church is only of any assistance in our salvation as long as she remains faithful to Jesus Christ”. But as I read more of this person’s response, it became clear that he or she was a Catholic.

This I found a bit staggering. As another respondent explained to him/her: “Though many among us may be unfaithful, there is no dividing of the Church, Christ’s Body, from Christ the Head. I think the line: ‘all salvation comes from Christ the Head through the Church which is his Body’ gets this across pithily. Drawing a distinction between ‘the Church’ (by which I take you to mean unfaithful teachers in the Church) and Christ can have this unfortunate effect of unwittingly conveying a Protestant ecclesiology.” I don’t need to say any more than that, it does the job very well: but there is, I fear, a lot more ecclesiological confusion among Catholics where that came from. I am disconcerted as I read through what appears beneath Catholic Herald blogs (not just mine), to find how woolly an idea of what the Church actually is seems to pervade a good deal of it.

And it’s all so dreary, so much of it: so many Catholics really do seem to have a quasi protestant notion of the Church. Protestants have this idea that the Church is about is the smooth and devious deployment of the bureaucratic skills necessary to run such a vast word-wide organisation (especially in the Vatican itself); and it may also be about dressing up in funny clothes and putting on grand and impressive services (if only they knew, though sometimes they are). So many Catholics don’t seem to know any better. There is no notion emerging from so much Catholic chatter of the sheer wonder of the Church — a wonder by which after 25 years as a Catholic I till find myself so often buoyed up, despite all the Marxes and the Kaspers.

Newman felt that sense of wonder after his conversion, until the end of his days:

Protestants…. think that the Church aims at appearance and effect; she must be splendid, and majestic, and influential: fine services, music, lights, vestments, and then again, in her dealings with others, courtesy, smoothness, cunning, dexterity, intrigue, management—these, it seems, are the weapons of the Catholic Church. Well, my brethren, she cannot help succeeding, she cannot help being strong, she cannot help being beautiful; it is her gift; as she moves, the many wonder and adore;—”Et vera incessu patuit Dea.” It cannot be otherwise, certainly; but it is not her aim; she goes forth on the one errand, as I have said, of healing the diseases of the soul….

Her one duty is to bring forward the elect to salvation, and to make them as many as she can:—to take offences out of their path, to warn them of sin, to rescue them from evil, to convert them, to teach them, to feed them, to protect them, and to perfect them… it is this supernatural sight and supernatural aim, which is the folly and the feebleness of the Church in the eyes of the world, and would be failure but for the providence of God. The Church overlooks everything in comparison of the immortal soul.

Good and evil to her are not lights and shades passing over the surface of society, but living powers, springing from the depths of the heart. Actions in her sight are not mere outward deeds and words, committed by hand or tongue, and manifested in effects over a range of influence wider or narrower, as the case may be; but they are the thoughts, the desires, the purposes of the solitary responsible spirit. She knows nothing of space or time, except as secondary to will; she knows no evil but sin, and sin is a something personal, conscious, voluntary; she knows no good but grace ….

That is what the Church is and ever will be, mediocre and even faithless bishops and bureaucrats notwithstanding, because it was ordained and instituted by God Himself. Here’s Newman again:

While the Church of Christ is literally what the world calls a party, it is something far higher also. It is not an institution of man, not a mere political establishment, not a creature of the state, depending on the state’s breath, made and unmade at its will, but it is a Divine society, a great work of God, a true relic of Christ and His Apostles… a holy treasure which, like the ark of Israel, looks like a thing of earth, and is exposed to the ill-usage and contempt of the world, but which in its own time, and according to the decree of Him who gave it, displays today, and tomorrow, and the third day, its miracles, as of mercy so of judgment, ‘lightnings, and voices, and thunderings, and an earthquake and great hail.’

The Church, rightly perceived, is a thing of divine wonder, even though it so often “looks like a thing of earth”. It may appear to the world that it is an institution of man, dependent for its effectiveness on the quality and faithfulness of its members: but it should never be seen in that way by Catholics, who know in their hearts that the reality, the sempiternal reality, is different, very different. It really is the Church which saves us.